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Interview with Senator Rob Portman

Interview with Senator Rob Portman

By John King, USA - January 19, 2012

KING: Less than two hours away from our big debate here in Charleston, South Carolina.

Let's talk now to a man who knows a lot about the pressure of presidential debates. He's Senator Rob Portman from Ohio. In campaigns past, he's advised Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John McCain on their presidential debates, at times playing a stand-in for their opponents.

This morning, just a few miles from here, Senator Portman decided to throw his support to the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Senator Portman with me here in Charleston.

You endorsed Romney today.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: I did.

KING: I want to get behind the curtain of your past experience helping people for debates.

But, as you know, one of the reasons, if look at the polls, there's Gingrich surge here, a lot of people trace it to a not-so- sure-footed performance by Governor Romney Monday night. He's been a relatively consistent debater, but Monday night was not his best performance. What does he need to do tonight?

PORTMAN: Look, I think he will be fine tonight. He needs to be relaxed and be himself. He needs to be sure he gets his message out.

As the moderator -- this frustrates you, I know -- but you have got to be sure, regardless of what the question is, you be sure that your positions are getting out there and communicated clearly. So I think he will do well tonight. He seemed very relaxed when I saw him earlier today. This is going to be a very close contest. But I think a lot of folks will be tuning in tonight.

KING: Well, one of the questions -- and if you look deep into the polling data, one of the potential turning points here in South Carolina is, Governor Romney says, I will release my taxes eventually. And he sort of -- first, he said he wasn't going to release them. Then he said he might release them. Now he says he will release them eventually.

Another top Romney surrogate, Chris Christie, the governor of Jersey, says, you know what, Governor Romney, get it out. If it's an issue, get it out.

Should he get them out?

PORTMAN: I think he's been pretty consistent about it, John.

From what I understand, he said, I'm going to do it in April, like other Americans do when do I my taxes. And that's traditionally what happens every four years. The presidential candidates in April...

KING: You have been in politics awhile, though. If it's hurting you right now, can you wait until April?

PORTMAN: Well, I think as long as he stays consistent on that message that that's what he's going to do. We will see what happens by April.

I mean, but in the primary, we will have moved along. We will have Super Tuesday behind us. But I think he can be consistent and do just fine.

KING: We have known each other a long time. And in campaigns past, you have been the stand-in. You have played Barack Obama. You have played Al Gore. I believe you have played Joe Biden. And you were just telling me before we came during the break that you once played Hillary Clinton in a Senate debate with Rick Lazio, who ran against her.

What is that like to assume somebody else's identity in a debate prep?

PORTMAN: It's sometimes very difficult, because you're not quite sure if you're playing yourself or somebody else.

But, look, it's also great to find out what the other side is thinking. And in the case of Barack Obama, I feel like I know the guy pretty well. Now I'm a U.S. senator on the Republican side of the aisle. And when I see the president, I sort of have a kinship with him. Same with Joe Lieberman, who's one of my colleagues, who I played also.

But it's an exciting opportunity to get... (CROSSTALK)

KING: There are some who say you might not have that opportunity to play President Obama this time, because you would be high on anybody's list for a vice presidential candidate.

Has that come up with Governor Romney at all?

PORTMAN: It has not. It has not.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: If the Republican nominee, whatever his name was, called Rob Portman and said, I need you, would you serve in that role?

PORTMAN: I think I would say, I can help you most by winning Ohio, by being a good senator.

And whoever gets elected -- and I hope it will be Mitt Romney -- we have got a lot of work to do. John, We have got an economy that is in tough shape. We have got to deal with this deficit and debt. And whoever it is, is going to need some allies on Capitol Hill. And I intend to be one of those.

KING: I suspect we may have this conversation down the road.

Senator Portman, it was good to see you tonight. Have a great debate. Great to be with you. Take care, sir.

PORTMAN: All right. 

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